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Border Patrol to equip 4k agents with body-worn cameras over next year

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Border Patrol to equip 4k agents with body-worn cameras over next year

  • A BORSTAR agent with Border Patrol stands near a border monument east of Yuma, Arizona.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comA BORSTAR agent with Border Patrol stands near a border monument east of Yuma, Arizona.

Nearly 4,000 Border Patrol agents will be given body-worn cameras over the next year as part of $13 million contract with Scottsdale-based Axon Enterprises, the company announced this week. 

The cameras will be deployed at 17 locations along the U.S.-Mexico border, including the Tucson Sector, over the next year, Axon said. 

It's unclear how the cameras will be deployed among Border Patrol's agents, which has a force of around 19,600 agents nationwide, including nearly 3,700 agents in the Tucson Sector alone.

For years, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol's parent agency, has refused to equip agents with body-worn cameras, even as many local police agencies, county sheriff's departments, and some federal agencies, like the National Park Service, have accepted cameras as part-and-parcel of their daily operations. And, notably, unlike other law enforcement agencies, Border Patrol agents do not have cameras mounted in their vehicles, but instead rely on small networks of cameras along the U.S.-Mexico border, or a smattering of remote camera systems mounted on vehicles, or in fixed locations on towers. 

However, that began to change following an Obama-era task force that recommended that police agencies use the cameras to curb use-of-force complaints and incidents. Despite that recommendation, the agency held back on purchasing body cameras for agents, but conducted a feasibility study in 2014, followed by a six-month evaluation in 2018.

"The evaluation recommended a targeted deployment to locations where cameras can provide the greatest benefit to both the public and agents," Axon said. 

Meanwhile, Congress mandated the agency begin deploying body-cams by 2021. 

The program, known as the Incident-Driven Video Recording System or IDVRS, will "provide additional documentation during enforcement incidents as well as evidence to support agents in the field," Axon said. "The cameras will also provide a layer of transparency that will support law enforcement and civilian sectors." 

CBP will deploy the company's Axon Body 3 cameras, backed by a cloud-based "digital evidence management" system, the company said. 

Axon was once known as Taser, and known for the line of "electroshock" weapons often used by police as a "less-lethal" alternative to guns. However, in 2017, the company rebranded itself as Axon, around its expanding line of video cameras. 

"Axon is proud to partner with the world class law enforcement agency that is the U.S. Border Patrol. We will increase agent safety and allow for more accountability with our new body camera program of record," said Axon federal vice president and general manager, Richard Coleman. "We look forward to continuing our support of the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection."

Along with the Tucson Sector, IDVRS will be deployed in phases to eight sectors, including San Diego, Yuma, El Paso, Big Bend, Del Rio, and the Rio Grande Valley. Cameras will also be sent to the Swanton Sector, which covers several states in the northeast, including Vermont and New Hampshire. 

CBP said that over the next five years, it intends to purchase 4,300 body-worn cameras, as well as 700 docking stations for the cameras, and 4,000 "video management systems" and cloud storage. 

Last October, CBP sent out a request for information, asking potential vendors for guidance on a potential body-worn camera program for "information, planning purposes, and market research only." Called an RFI, the request is often the first step toward building a program, and the request gives a few details about the agency's potential plans to give agents body-worn cameras, along with computer software to manage and redact video captured by the cameras. Among the agency's requests were cameras that could give agents the ability to "run facial recognition against a database of preexisting images" and compare facial images against a "real-time image of the person." 

However, last year Axon said last year that it would not add facial-recognition algorithms to body-worn cameras after an independent board found that the technology is "not currently reliable enough to ethically justify its use on body-worn cameras." 

CBP said that it conducted "extensive" market research, and said in a redacted document that a single company—Axon—was the only vendor qualified to provide IDVRS technology.  "At this time," Axon "is the only source that possesses the necessary security and data management authorizations that will support the immediate deployment of the required technology." 

CBP said that 13 vendors had responded to the RFI, and only Axon was able to prove that its system met federal requirements. 

Border Patrol has been harshly criticized for use-of-force policies, following a series of deadly incidents along the U.S.-Mexico border, including the 2012 shooting of 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in Nogales, Sonora. 

In 2015, in a report to Congress, CBP argued that the while "many state and local agencies utilize cameras and observe positive benefits" from body-worn cameras" the "operating environments and needs of CBP differ in many respects from those of other agencies." 

"A significant number of CBP personnel work in harsh physical environments, in some locations with limited internet connectivity, and the nature of CBP law enforcement encounters are unique in many ways. Additionally, varied assignments, uniforms, equipment, and environmental elements can affect the functionality of technology," wrote then-Deputy Commissioner of CBP Kevin McAleenan. 

McAleenan later rose from CBP commissioner to DHS Secretary in April 2019 after the Trump administration ousted Kirstjen Nielsen. Like his four predecessors, McAleenan was also forced out, and has been replaced by Chad Wolf, who has yet to be confirmed as the head of DHS after nearly a year as the interim. 

In May 2019, the agency announced it would start testing body-worn cameras in "operational environments" over a six-month period at nine different CBP units, including a unit of the Tucson Air Branch, the part of CBP known as Air and Marine Operations. However, the agency did not publish the results of that test. 

A review of body-worn cameras, published in the journal Homeland Security Affairs, estimated that for CBP, it would cost around $103.45 million per year to deploy cameras throughout the agency. Though that estimate includes only the cameras, and not the necessary infrastructure, and was based on the average annual cost of cameras used by several police departments, including the Mesa Police Department. 

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